Watching my 3-year-old grandchild in deep concentration as she perseveres to make simple deliberate marks on a conker brings into focus the importance of enabling children to experiment with mark -making.
A child’s mark-making is not just the beginnings of learning to write (important as that is) but the beginnings of a myriad of life skills. Communication through mark-making crosses all disciplines - be it the scribbles of mathematical formula, a quick sketch for a dress design, a technical drawing of an aeroplane engine, a simple, decorative, repeating pattern, a map showing you the way home…
Writing and drawing demands two separate sets of skill-
- the physical act of using an implement to mark a surface
- the intellectual act of communication - a thought / an idea - making ‘thinking visible’.
Developing both gross and fine motor skills is essential to afford children the dexterity they need to have control over mark-making tools.
Gross motor skills are large body movements involving the larger muscle groups, including core strength and balance e.g. running jumping cycling hopping skipping climbing dancing spinning rolling. I was a teacher for 35 years and realised that children with poor core strength experienced huge difficulty with their fine motor skills as they couldn’t stabilise their bodies to allow them to perform fine movements.
As a passionate advocate of children being outdoors in a natural environment, I will of course promote the outdoors as the very best place for children to develop their gross motor skills. Nature’s physical playground is the best! And, from an adult point of view, it’s easy and cheap. Woodlands, beaches, fields, parks offer endless opportunities for running, jumping, cycling, hopping, skipping, climbing, dancing, spinning and rolling! AND DON’T FORGET THROWING! So many children can’t throw (and we’ll always need future cricket fielders in the future …).
Fine motor skills are skills which involve smaller muscle groups - elbows, wrists, hands and fingers. We need to be able to grip and manipulate objects, use both hands for a task, and use just the thumb and one finger to pick up objects. Actions such as gripping, poking, squeezing, twisting, applying different amounts of pressure, are essential to develop dexterity.
Again, playing outside provides endless opportunities to develop these skills: planting and collecting seeds, drawing with sticks in mud and sand, snipping aromatic leaves into a bowl, learning knot skills, arranging natural objects in patterns on the ground, making mud pies, mixing potions-adding ingredients, pouring water, picking fruits and vegetables, arranging pebbles, collecting treasures, letting a ladybird or snail find its way across a hand.
Observe a child engrossed in a mark-making activity and you see the truth in the term ‘play is a child’s work’. When children mark-make they are perhaps telling a story or solving a problem, reliving an experience or recording what they have seen. Through mark-making children can express their feelings, investigate a new concept and develop their understanding of the world and their place in it. Children will often give their work as a treasured gift to someone they love.
‘Through their marks, (children) are communicating their ideas, expressing their feelings, developing their imagination and creativity, and testing their hypotheses about the world. These opportunities for making ‘thinking visible’ are fundamental to children’s learning and development and should be the entitlement of every child’ National Strategies: Department for Children Schools and Families.
As caring adults, we can provide many opportunities for our children to explore different ways to express themselves through mark-making. Collecting/selecting and decorating natural objects- a craft humankind has valued for an eternity, making collages, painting using natural inks and dyes, making paintbrushes, making and using charcoal on various surfaces, arranging natural objects, drawing a map of their garden, park, recalling through drawing a nature walk, making an observational drawing of a minibeast temporarily borrowed.
‘Children can experience their relationship with nature and the things of nature with loving intensity. An intensity reflected in their representations and even in their gestures.’ Loris Malaguzzi Reggio Emilia
A top teacher tip for enabling a sense of satisfaction for a child when exploring and developing their mark-making would be, wherever possible, to provide good quality materials – if you give a child dried up felt pens, they will produce something which looks like it’s been achieved with dried up felt pens.
- Provide tools that the child doesn’t have to apply too much pressure to: gel pens, paint marker pens, brushes, inks, paint and working felt pens, charcoal, chalks and soft oil pastels are all great.
- Offer tools fit for the job e.g. if your child intends to draw a detailed, intricate picture of a spider they have discovered, a big lump of charcoal will just cause frustration!
- Set up an alternative recycling box with interesting shapes, surfaces, sizes and colours which your child can raid for inspiration.
- Remember the process is the important bit, not the finished result - too much pressure otherwise and happenstances often spark wonderful creativity.
And finally, treasure this time in your child’s life. As Picasso said: ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’
Footnote: As we move so rapidly into this digital world pause to think. Do the children in your care ever see you mark-making? Nowadays we tend to write our shopping lists on our phones, send messages via WhatsApp, write greetings via Moon pig, draw via CAD. Why not mark-make together?